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September 25, 2019 Last updated: November 30, 2019

Podcast #546: How to Get a Memory Like a Steel Trap

Have you ever walked into a room to get something, only to forget why you walked into that room in the first place? Do you constantly forget where you parked your car in a parking garage? Or have trouble remembering people’s names?

After today’s episode, you’ll be well on your way to never forgetting these things again because my guest is champion memory athlete Nelson Dellis and he’s got plenty of advice on how to improve your own memory, even if you think yours stinks. Nelson is the author of the book Remember It!, and we begin our show discussing the world of memory competitions, how Nelson got involved with them, and what records he’s notched so far. Nelson then corrects a couple common myths people have about memory and makes the case for why you ought to care about improving your own. He shares the overarching system he recommends to improve your ability to retain information, and how to use it to remember where you parked, people’s names, and the items on your to-do list. Nelson also explains the reason we forget what we walked into a certain room to get, and what to do if that happens to you. He then explains how walking through a “memory palace” can help you remember lists, speeches, and more.  

Plenty of action-ready, easy-to-remember tips in this show.

Show Highlights

  • What exactly is a memory athlete?
  • What are the world records that Nelson holds?
  • Did Nelson have a predilection for memory as a kid? 
  • What “regular” folks stand to benefit from improving their memory 
  • The connection between memory and navigation 
  • What are the myths about memory?
  • Why you need to trust your memory 
  • The See, Link, Go system 
  • How can you manage your life better with good memory?
  • The weird system for remembering where you left your wallet or keys?
  • How about for remembering someone’s name?
  • Why you should remember to be more aware of your memory
  • Why you forget what you were looking for when you go to a new room 
  • The memory palace technique for remembering specific lists of things 
  • An easy memory task to start trying today 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

remember it book cover nelson dellis

Connect With Nelson

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Nelson on Twitter

Nelson on Instagram

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast.

Have you ever walked into a room to get something, only to forget why you walked into that room in the first place? Do you constantly forget where you parked your car in a parking garage? Or do you have trouble remembering people’s names? Well after today’s episode, you’ll be well on your way to never forgetting these things again, because my guest today is champion memory athlete Nelson Dellis. He’s got plenty of advice on how to improve your own memory, even if you think yours stinks.

Nelson is the author of the book Remember It, and we begin our show discussing the world of memory competitions, how Nelson got involved with them, and what records he’s notched so far. Nelson then corrects a couple common myths people have about memory, and makes the case for why you ought to care about improving your own, and share the overarching system he recommends to improve your ability to retain information, and how to use it to remember where you parked your car, people’s names and the items on your to-do list. Nelson also explains the reason we forget what we walked into a certain room to get, and what to do if that happens to you. He then walks us through how walking through a memory palace can help you remember lists, speeches and more.

Plenty of action ready, easy to remember tips in the show. After it’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/rememberit. Nelson joins me now via clearcast.io.

Nelson Dellis, welcome to the show.

Nelson Dellis: Hey, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: You are a memory athlete, you’re a grand master of memory, and you’ve won several USA memory championships. For those who are familiar with what a memory athlete is, what is a memory athlete?

Nelson Dellis: A memory athlete is someone who memorizes competitively. Then the next question is what are these competitions like? Is it the game of memory where you’re flipping over cards, that’s what most people think it is and trying to master them. But no, it’s a bunch of different memory tests across a day, or a number of days, depending on the format, and it tests numbers, cards, names, lists of words. Whatever you can think of, we probably have an event based around that.

Brett McKay: How did you get involved in this. Was this something when you were a kid you were like, “I love memorizing”? Or you fell into it by accident?

Nelson Dellis: No, not at all. People ask me this about my past, like first, when did you just discover that you had this gift? I’m the first to correct them that this is something I learned about 10 years ago. Then the next question is, well you must have had some inkling that you were good at memory when you were younger.

The short of it, the true answer is not really. I had an affinity for certain things like any kid might do, and I probably could memorize something that I really cared about back then, but in general I’d say my memory was pretty subpar or average. Then over the years, once I discovered this stuff, it just lit like kerosene and took over my life.

Brett McKay: In the book you wrote, Remember It, where you talked about memory techniques, talk about how your grandma getting Alzheimer’s also played somewhat, a little bit of a role and you getting into this stuff.

Nelson Dellis: Totally yeah. That’s what put memory on my map at the time, just because she was struggling with Alzheimer’s, and eventually it took her life. I was sitting there, I had never lost anybody close to me, in my family, or in my life really yet. That really hit me, and it made me question myself, and what having a healthy memory or a good memory was, and if it was anything I could do now to change that. That led me down the rabbit hole of these championships and the techniques behind the championship winners.

Brett McKay: What are some of the … You hold several world records for memory. What are some of those feats that you’ve done?

Nelson Dellis: Listen, the sport’s always changing, like any other sport, so I’ve had records and then lost them, and earned them back, and then lost them again. I currently have two U.S. records, I believe one of them is a world national record, but the one I’m super proud of is a memorizing the most names in 15 minutes, which is 235 names.

Then I believe the other one is also names. I think it’s 125 international names, which is a big difference than the 235, but you got to see these names that show up in international competitions. It’s like combining Chinese first names with really long Indian last names. It’s from all over the world, so they’re really difficult.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about memory. Why should regular folks who don’t plan on memorizing thousands of digits of pi, why should they work on their memory? What do they stand to benefit to doing that?

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, it’s a great question. I had an event last night where somebody asked me, “Why do we need it at all if we have instant access to all the information we need?” That’s a fair question, but what gets it for me is that I am using my brain daily, and because of that I’m able to make it stronger, sharper.

If I am in a situation where I need to use my brain, which is all day long, I can be very confident in its performance and I know how to use it. I’m able to control what’s staying in my mind, what’s coming in and out of it, how I use it, how I access it. That’s a really empowering feeling. I don’t know if people these days have that feeling anymore.

It’s like a fake sense of control because you think that because you have information at your fingertips that you have a master of anything you want. I guess there is a bit of truth to that, but deep down it’s you have zero control, or less and less control the more you rely on these devices, and Wikipedia, and Google and stuff. There’s that argument.

Then there’s also the health side of things. If you’re not using your brain, it’s wasting away. If you’re injured, you break your leg and you’re in a chair for a long time because you got to rest it, you see that leg atrophies. It loses all its muscle, it looks really thin and weird. If you don’t use your brain it’s the same kind of thing, you forget how to memorize well.

Brett McKay: No, I like that. This will probably come up later, but a few weeks ago we had a guest on the show, she wrote a book about navigation, and relying on GPS, this atrophy in her brain. I think we’ll talk about this because navigation and memory are innately connected. In fact, some of the memory techniques rely on us going on a journey in our brain.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. I told this story a few times this year because it really stuck with me, is my wife lives in Upstate New York and I’m from Miami. I know Miami very well in terms of directions and where everything is laid out, but Upstate New York, I’ve had to learn over the years as we visited her parents and family.

One of the most recent times we visited I was like, “Listen, I still don’t know how to get from point A to point B, these very common routes we take to go to the gym, or to the town.” I always just put it in my phone and follow it. But that doesn’t help me because I don’t know anything about where I ma, where things are related to each other.

That one times I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to wing it.” I’m going to figure out. If I get lost, I get lost. But you know what, the struggle is going to help you remember, those mistakes will help me remember if I make any. Sure enough, I’ve found my way home. It wasn’t easy, but my brain figured it out. Because of that, I remember now how to get from point A to point B. Just that act of struggling through it, and really trying to situate myself, and try to understand the layout of my mind did wonders for my brain. It was incredible.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some of the myths people have about memory. I think you mentioned one in the introduction where people assume the reason you’re good at this stuff is because you have some sort of innate gift, like you were born with a good memory. That sounds like it’s not true.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. I think that in general over all of humans I don’t think having an incredible memory is something that really exists. You hear people talking about photographic memories, people are just born with it. I’ve never met anybody like that. Sure, there are some cases, autistic people or people with Aspergers who are capable of solely one task, and they’re extraordinarily well at that task, and it has to do with memory, that’s a special case.

But the majority of people, we all have the same memory. We’re all given the same tools, and it’s how you work on those skills that sets you apart in terms of your memory skills. It’s not innate.

Brett McKay: Are there any other myths about memory that people have?

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. Another one, and this is kind of related, but people think that if they have a bad memory, that’s just what they’re stuck with, that their memory can’t change, and that’s totally false. It’s something you can work on. No matter how bad any your listeners think their memory is, you can use these techniques and become a champion even if you really wanted to.

Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about some tips on how to improve our memory. Some of the broad general tips you give in your book Remember It is first thing you got to do is you got to trust your memory.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Why is that important to trust your memory? How does that help?

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, because I think one of the biggest killers of being able to have a good memory is when you doubt yourself, or if you believe that you have this bad memory. Most people do, unfortunately.

Often when I go into give a speech or some seminar, I try to really show people that first of all, they could do this, and secondly that their memory is just as good as anybody else’s, that it’s not bad. People get stuck in this acceptance of, “Yeah I have a bad memory, that’s just me, Bad Memory McGee, whatever.” But that’s not the case. People have to get out of that and just go for it, give your memory a shot and just trust in it.

I found that the best performances in my memory in competitions that have happened were when I totally believed and trusted in my memory, and went for it. It’s just the craziest thing because you almost feel like you’re not memorizing, you’re in that flow zone in a way, and I was able to memorize one of my fastest times, or the most digits or names that I’ve memorized because of that trust.

Brett McKay: There’s different techniques you talked about in the book, but all of them have this over arching system involved and it’s SEE LINK GO! Let’s talk about the SEE part of this. What are you talking about when you say SEE?

Nelson Dellis: SEE means basically see the thing that you’re trying to memorize in your mind’s eye. Basically turn it into a picture because our brains remember pictures better. Often the things that we’re trying to memorize are difficult to see, if you look at them just for what they are, like a number or a name. Often they look very complicated, or foreign, or don’t really have any meaning.

If you can see it and by seeing I really mean visualize it using all of your senses, try to think of something that conjures up an image, whether it’s associative or it actually conjures up an image, try to picture a image for the thing rather than seeing the number or seeing the actual letters of the word.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. This is an important step because you could do this with abstract ideas too, like you talk about. How can you see liberty, or you can think of the Statute of Liberty?

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. Simple nouns that you know and know what they look like, that’s easy to initialize. But then there are different types of information that get harder. Abstract terms like liberty, what would you picture? Well, I can’t really picture a liberty, but I could maybe picture the Statue of Liberty. That’s a natural association I might make and it’s a very tangible image I can create in my mind.

I visited it when I was young, and so I could maybe tap into that feeling I have being there with my dad, and getting to the island and stuff like that, and the color, that green, and then just maybe even the feeling of New York. All these sense tap together with emotion, that is the true essence of seeing. Your brain loves that. It just gobbles that stuff up versus stuff that’s very dry and hard to picture.

What memory becomes eventually is how do I encode that thing into a picture I can see? There are different strategies for more complicated things like numbers, and binary digits, or cards.

Brett McKay: We can talk about some of those things here in a bit, but let’s talk about that linking phase. There’s several ways to link but what does linking look like in its simplest form?

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, so linking in essence, so the idea of having a single picture that you see is good, but it’s not very good unless you anchor it or link it to something that you already know. That’s what learning is, that’s how we learn. If you’ve ever really thought about how you learn something, it’s by association and by connecting it to something in your mind.

Think about it, if our brain is made up of al these correcting neurons, and somewhere deep down the most fundamental neurons, the basic ones, the home base ones that are responsible for the most simplest pieces of knowledge that we know, everything is built off of that. Something new that you learn, you’re going to try to relate it to these well established networks that you have, and make it a shortcut along these paths so that it’s easier to access later because it’s all related and intertwined.

In short, the quick and easy way is just there are different strategies to relate that new thing to  somethings that you already know. All these steps, they’re meshed together because if you’re associating it to something you already know, you’re almost already seeing it in a way too because if you hear the word liberty, and I start seeing it, I’m also linking it in a way too.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. That could be like when you learn someone’s name, you’re trying to remember someone’s name, you might link it to a celebrity that you know in your brain already. So you picture the celebrity and link that with the person’s name you just learned.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. The linking part also is responsible for how you act with the information later. It’s almost equivalent to saying, “How am I going to store this information?” There are different strategies to go about that.

If you meet someone, for example, you might want to link the picture for their name, the thing that you’re trying memorize, to something about them. That’s the thing that you would notice every time that you saw them. That’s the thing you know because you see that, your brain just tends to see that thing, and notice it every time, so attach that image or locate it onto this … It would be located on that thing of that person’s face.

Brett McKay: We’ll talk about some more complex linking techniques here in a bit, but let’s talk about the GO. What does GO mean?

Nelson Dellis: GO is the final glue, the special sauce that brings it all together. If you come up with a picture and you store it or you link it, you’re good to go for the most part, but you really want to go with it, meaning really take it to the next level in terms of how you visualize all of that happening together. That means make it weird, make it bizarre, make it go way over the top, tap into those emotions, put some movement and action into that image, and all that together should make that image as sticky as hell in your mind.

Brett McKay: It’s like if you’re trying to link something to pizza, don’t just think of a pizza emoji, you want to think of an actual pizza, like heat waves coming off of it, you can smell it, or there might even be a dead rat on it.

Nelson Dellis: Right. Exactly. Think of all your senses, think of your emotions and try to really hone in on a few of those for that image. The less static this picture is, the better, and the more uncomfortable or disturbing, hilarious that it is, the more it’s going to stick.

Brett McKay: Well that’s just your taking advantage of how memory works. We remember stuff that stands out. If you’re thinking back your childhood memories, the things you remember the most are the things that were really bizarre and happened maybe once. That’s how your memory works. It remembers things that are different from everything else.

Nelson Dellis: Exactly. Yeah. This is essentially what we’re doing, is we’re trying to make everything that we memorized different and unique, which is a challenge sometime, but we know that it works, so we can try to emulate that every time we’re given some data that is crucial to remember.

Brett McKay: Let’s walk through how the SEE LINK GO! works, and remembering everyday things. One thing you talk about in the book is someone asks you to go do something. Maybe it’s your boss says, “Hey, do this task for me. I need 100 copies of this thing.” Then you’re like,” Okay.” Then 10 minutes later you’re like, “Oh man, what did he ask me to do?” How can you SEE LINK GO! to remember that sort of stuff?

Nelson Dellis: The first thing would be how am I going to encode this? How am I going to see this? There could be 100 ways to do this, but I’ll just go through what I would do it. There’s a bit of improvisation involved here, and it depends on what you gravitate towards, what you think of first. You might think differently, but I would say, “Okay, well the important part here is I got to remember 100 copies and it’s for my boss, or whatever, and I got to do it today.” I’m going to memorize it.

It depends how you store it. If it’s for later on, it might be stored differently in case you have some kind of ongoing to-do list for the week, in some mental calendar. But if it’s for today, maybe just keeping it in your mind until you get it done, and then getting rid of it is good enough.

100 I might think of a way to visualize 100. I have a number system, so I would picture Frankenstein for that number. That’s who 100 is in my system. But if somebody didn’t have that, so I might put my boss’ head inside of the photo copier in my mind, and imagine just slamming the door of it on his head 100 times, until 100 copies come out. I would picture that, what it would sound like, absurdly over the top violent that is, but I’d use it in that sense so that it sticks. It’s just a really memorable picture.

Brett McKay: But you wouldn’t want to tell your boss that that’s what you did?

Nelson Dellis: No, no, no. Yeah, I’d definitely keep that to yourself.

Brett McKay: Keep that to your self.

Nelson Dellis: The SEE part, there’s an image there. The LINK part is how am I storing this? Well, I have to link it to the fact that my boss needs this done. That’s the important part of this thing, and so I don’t want to forget that. I’m inevitably in my job going to think about my boss or see my boss, so every time that happens that’s going to ensure that this bizarre image comes up. This is in the case that I don’t care of it immediately, so maybe later on in the day I’m like, “Oh, you got to remember it before the end of the day,” so I’m attaching it to my boss so that I don’t forget it that day.

Then GO, it’s just that extra thought detail that makes it over the top uncomfortable or weird.

Brett McKay: Another thing that people often lose or try to remember is where they left their keys or wallet. In the book you talk about well the easiest thing to do is get yourself a tray where you put everything, do that. But let’s say there’s times when you can’t do that, and you just have to toss your … How do you remember where you left your keys so you’re not scrambling for them when you’re trying to get to a kid’s practice?

Nelson Dellis: A lot of what I describe in the book is also managing your life. That’s the first thing you can do. I say that simple hack of just trying to put your keys in the same spot every day, have a little bowl for it. That seems like a cop out, but it’s useful. A lot of the reasons we forget stuff is because we’re all over the place. If you’re a little more mindful about what you do and if you’re very predictable in what you do, then you’re preparing yourself for future forgetfulness.

But if you want to go beyond that, then one technique that I like to do when I’m either taking medicine, or I put something down, or I’m certain I might forget it later, what I do is when I put it down or right before I put it down, I do some really weird action to myself. I’ll either pinch my nose, or sometimes I say something out oud in a really strange voice. It depends on where I am, if I’m in public or private, which sounds totally bizarre, but it works because every time afterwards if I’m trying to remember where was I when I put down my backpack, I don’t know where my backpack is, I’m going to think of me doing that weird sound and where I was when I stood there doing it. That will help me remember where the thing was that I put there, whether it’s my keys, wallet, backpack, whatever.

Brett McKay: It’s a great example seeing the SEE LINK GO! all happen at once because you’re creating the image, but doing the weird thing, and you’re linking that weird thing to where your keys are, and then GO. It’s weird. You’re talking to yourself, so you remember it more.

Nelson Dellis: Exactly. Yeah. The next concern is what if I forget to do that? This is where memory becomes more like a lifestyle, a different frame of mind. You have to start remembering to remember. But people are like, “Well how am I going to do that?” Well the more you’re aware of your memory and understanding how it works, which is what you learn when you get into this world of mnemonics, you start looking at everything that happens to you through this lens of how can I make this a little bit more memorable? How am I going to make this stick? How should I think about it so that it’s a lot stickier? That I think in itself helps you remember things just way more, even without using some of these weird tactics.

Brett McKay: This could be done with parking, like where you parked. So if you parked on Level B, like I think you talked about imagine your car full of bread.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, think of a word that starts with a B. Or if you’re in the Red Zone of the garage, think of your car is just filled to the brim with gallons of blood, and when you open the door just out of The Shining when the elevator doors open there’s just all this blood careening out of the car. Yeah, you just try to incorporate some kind of image and link it to your car, that’s where you parked it, and then just make sure to go.

Brett McKay: Here’s another memory thing that happens to people all the time, and when it happens they’re like, “Oh, man. I’m getting old.” They start worrying, “Am I getting Alzheimer’s?” As they go into a room, because they had to go get something there, and they’re like, “I don’t know why I came in here.” But you actually researched that it possibly offers a suggestion on why that happens. Why does our brain tend to forget what we went to a room for when we get there?

Nelson Dellis: Which is this strange phenomenon that when you pass through an entryway, your brain re-shifts or resets in a way. So it’s very common that when you walk through that doorway of a room, you may blank out what you were going in there to do.

It’s funny, I had a conversation with Key from Key & Peel from Comedy Central. He was a host of a show, and we were talking about that very thing. He said that it’s a similar thing when you’re memorizing lines for a script. He said when he memorized one page and then he turned the page to the other, that changing of the page, he could remember that whole page but then the next page would be separated suddenly because of that disjointedness of changing the page. We were talking about how there’s studies that show that just that separation is your brain resets.

A tip that I give people is to walk back into the room you were before, which will usually, not always, but sometimes it helps to remember what you were doing when you were in that previous mindset in the other room.

Brett McKay: Right. But what your brain’s doing is it linked the thing where you got the idea. Say if you were in your kitchen like, “I need to go to the dining room to get my wallet.” Well your brain probably associated wallet with kitchen because you’re already in the kitchen. As soon as you go into the dining room it’s like why are you here?”

I think that’s related to that idea of geography and memory, or navigation and memory are connected. We connect ideas with our geographic landscape. Once we move context, our memory can get messed up.

Nelson Dellis: Right, yeah. That’s really where the strong parts of the LINK method come. Some of the strategies that we use in these memory championships are based off of using actual spacial information to link information to. We use this idea of a memory palace, which is basically taking a mental blueprint of a place that you know, and using that to attach your images to. It’s super effective.

Brett McKay: Another every day memory task that we do is remembering names. We talked about that just now a while back ago, but it’s just linking the person’s name with something you’re very familiar with. But I think the secret is doing that GO step, and making it really bizarre and absurd so that you remember it even moreso. Maybe find a feature on the person, and then just amplify it and make it caricature.

Nelson Dellis: Yup.

Brett McKay: That’s the GO part, and you’ll cement in what their name is.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, and also the linking part, not a lot of people do this with names, but I try to attach it to something about the person. I tend to use their face just because that’s what I’m looking at, or what I notice when I’m meeting someone for the first time.

If Nelson over there has a big nose, I come up with a picture, I’d see his name as an image. Maybe I’d picture Nelson for The Simpsons, the character. Then I want to link it to his nose, so every time I see him I’m going to know it’s his nose, and there will be the picture that I place there. I imagine a bully, Nelson from The Simpsons, just beating up on his big old nose, and that’s why it’s big. I can add as much secret sauce to that to make it pop even further, but you get the idea.

Brett McKay: Again, like thinking of your boss, slamming your boss’ head in a copy machine, you wouldn’t want to tell people the thing you …

Nelson Dellis: No. I’m sorry that my images always come back to being a little violent, but they’re not always that way. Every person is different. Maybe you want to just go with something that’s maybe a little more somber, or pleasant, I don’t know, it all depends. You have to find out what works for you, and I’m just trying to find the things that I know my brain will never forget.

Brett McKay: No, violence is memorable. I remember fights when I was a kid or watching a fight. I still remember that 25 years later.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, me too. I’m thinking of … I wasn’t a very confrontational guy, but I had some run-ins with some guys who picked on me in middle school or whatever. I remember one day this guy just pushed me up against the wall and it was the last straw kind of thing. I remember doing this move on him where I tripped him, and pinned him on the floor. It was just this thing where I can picture it like daylight in my mind. That’s what 15, 20 years ago.

Brett McKay: Yeah, remember it. You can use that probably to peg something, a memory that you’re trying to remember.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about … Let’s get a little more advanced here. This is getting into your realm a little bit of memorizing list of things. How do you remember a list of things you have to do that have a particular order? For example, one thing you do or people do in these memory games is remember presidents of the United States.

Nelson Dellis: Sure. Yeah, so now when you get into lists of things where order matters, you’re required or you need now better organization for those pictures because there’s a lot of them, and they have to be in a certain sequence. The linking set needs a bit more care.

The strategies that we use, there’s a few out there, but the go-to one I just mentioned was the memory palace. When you use memory palace, you basically have this blueprint of a place, and you’ve decided on a route through it, something that makes sense. You know this place, like your house, let’s say. You know how to walk through your house. If you close your eyes and start at the front door, you could easily navigate around in your mind. You know it that well.

If you do that while imagining the presidents, all the names, pictures for the names along a path from your front door, all the way up to your bedroom, you’re going to remember that very easily because all you have to do to recall it is walk back through your house and pick up the crazy images that you left there along the way.

Brett McKay: Also, when you’re thinking of the presidents, you want to find something about them and make it memorable. So for George Washington, you might imagine him as a washing machine.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. A washing machine washing a ton of something. You have a washing ton, and that could be your doorway. In your doorway, instead of a door, there’s a big washing machine with a ton of … If you want to take this even further, you can combine maybe do two presidents at a time. Maybe second president is Adams, I think of an Adam’s apple, so I have apples, that’s my picture. Now washing machine is washing a ton of apples. That image in itself is totally insane. Imagine walking up to my house and there they are, there is that image as the front door, never going to forget that. I’ve already encoded the first two presidents.

Brett McKay: Right there. This memory palace, this has been around for thousands of years.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. The origin story says that it comes from the early Greeks, but there’s lot of civilizations that use some form of this. I believe there were even some South American cultures using, or even African cultures that use these boards that had knots on them, or little pieces of just things that they’d attach to this board, and the pathway through the board was basically their memory palace, their portable memory palace.

Brett McKay: Besides doing a memory palace, another linking tool you can do if you want to remember things in a particular order is I think of a story in your head that connects all these things. Instead of these things to a room in your house, you could just imagine a scene where you see George Washington as a washing machine doing something with John Adams who you  have a weird picture, and then that’s the link. All you have to do is remember the last thing, and once you go to the next thing, you have that connection so you’re able to keep going.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, so one connects to the next, like a connection of linking chains. That technique is very effective as well, it’s very quick because you don’t need to set up a memory palace. The downside to it though is that if you miss one, if you forget one then you’re going to have a hard time. You have lost the connection to the next one. Whereas with a memory palace, if you skip one or you forget one, you can still keep walking through your house.

That’s this world is there’s some different strategies for different scenarios. It depends if you have to get something in your quick, maybe the story method is the way to go, or if you have a memory palace ready to go and you want to get information to stick there longer, then go with the memory palace.

Brett McKay: With the memory palace, you can have memory palaces inside memory palaces. Maybe of your whole house, but then you use a single room and have a memory palace in that room.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, yeah. It’s limitless what you can imagine as a memory palace. Some people say, “I live in a tiny apartment. I’m limited,” but I tell them shrink yourself. Imagine you’re the size of an ant, and now suddenly you have this giant structure to explore it. You could memorize a hundred things at just your front door if you wanted to, just because if you look closely enough at your door, you could make a little pathway through it that goes from the bottom corner, to this little splinter that you noticed, the handle. Every little nook and cranny on that door could potentially be a location where you’re storing a piece of information.

Brett McKay: I know the Ancient Greeks used the memory palace as a way to remember speeches, memorize speeches. How does that look? How can you apply these, the SEE LINK GO! with the memory palace, remember a speech you have to give?

Nelson Dellis: Then back in the day that’s what they would use the memory palaces for, is they would store their speeches, and they would put the topics of what they wanted to say in each location along this path.

Text is hard, so speech is essentially just text that you want to memorize. You can go about it a few ways. If you want to memorize just the general ideas, that’s one way. Or if you’re memorizing a speech verbatim, word for word, that’s a little harder, but you got to memorize every single word. But essentially the process is the same, you just turn the word or turn the idea into an image, and then place it along a path or link it, in this case I would suggest a memory palace. Then when you’re giving your speech, all you got to do is think of that place and mentally walk through it as you’re reciting your speech.

Brett McKay: How does this look, this memory palace look for numbers? I guess the trick there is how do you turn a number, which is very abstract, into a visual thing?

Nelson Dellis: The tricky thing with numbers becomes the SEE part, how do I encode it? There’s a few methods to do that as well. But it essentially hinges around making these numbers into words, and then those words suddenly it just becomes memorizing words, which is easier.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. You talked about earlier, you mentioned Frankenstein is 100.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, so my system, it’s a bit complicated, but every three-digit number I have a preset person for it, and 100 happens to be Frankenstein.

Brett McKay: Just as a memory athlete, what you’ve done is if you’ve gone, done some work ahead of time where you’ve assigned certain things.

Nelson Dellis: Exactly.

Brett McKay: A three-digit number is assigned a person. Do you have two-digits numbers are assigned to a specific type of thing?

Nelson Dellis: Yup. Well, when I started I actually started with just a two-digit system. Every number from 00 to 99 was something, and I actually used this method called Person-Action-Object. Every two-digit number had a person, but also an action and an object associated with it. That way if I ever saw a group of six digits, I would split it up in two, two and two. The first two being a person, the next two being an action, and then the last two being an object. What that allows for is for me to come up with a very creative scene, a person doing something with a something. I would place that in memory palace as I go, and each little image is now taking up six digits, which is a really nice way to compress data.

Then yeah, from then on I tried to expand, well if I can memorize six, who’s to say that I can’t put seven or eight in one location. I just got to come up with more images to represent larger numbers.

Brett McKay: There’s another trick you did there when you’re memorizing numbers, like say a long number is your chunking numbers. Instead of trying to remember single numbers by themselves, you’re looking, I can remember three numbers a lot easier than just three individual numbers.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, yeah. This is often a strategy too when I’m trying to memorize is what’s the most efficient way to smush this data down. That’s called chunking. Sometimes if you look at a number, and it’s just meaningless, it’s just a big chunk of numbers, but if you maybe separate it out into something that looks like a phone number, like a three-digit area code, three-digit first part of the number, and then the four digits at the end, maybe suddenly now it’s a little easier to read and absorb because you chunk it now as a phone number, three, three and four, rather than 10 all at once.

Brett McKay: Yeah, one thing that I do, I don’t do the link thing but just I do a lot of chunking where I have to remember a 10-digit number. I’ll just try to remember in groups of three. Instead of saying 5-2-0, it’s 520.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, 520 as one thing is a lot easier than thinking 5-2-0. Exactly.

Brett McKay: If I want to take this up a notch, I could assign 520 like a Frankenstein doing the moonwalk or something.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. For me, 520 is a character from the show Flight of the Conchords. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched that one.

Brett McKay: Bret? Which one?

Nelson Dellis: It wasn’t Bret, it was Mel, the weird chick. That number, those three digits suddenly is this really colorful funny comedian that’s whenever I think about it, I laugh, and can picture her in all the episodes. It’s suddenly got a ton of imagery to work with, rather than this dry set of three digits.

Brett McKay: Wasn’t Mel also … Isn’t she Mabel in Gravity Falls, the cartoon?

Nelson Dellis: I don’t know. I never saw that. I know she was in The Last Man on Earth show as well.

Brett McKay: Now I’m going to associate 520 with Mabel from Gravity Falls from here on out.

You’re doing all these things, but is there a place for review? Do you constantly have to review this stuff in order for you to remember it? Do you have to review your things you’ve linked, like do you have to review that you’ve assigned 100 to Frankenstein?

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, this is something that I had to practice and review a lot at first. It’s 1,000 different things. But after a while, by using it a lot in practice, it’s almost become a language that I’m fluent in. I look at 520 and I don’t have to say, “Well okay, that was this and that. No, okay.” No, not anymore. It’s 520 is Mel. I look at that number and it’s like I’m looking at an episode of Flight of the Conchords. I don’t even have to think about it. That’s what you want out of these systems so that you can spend the least amount of time trying to remember what everything represents, and actually focus on the pictures and remembering the pictures.

Brett McKay: Here’s another question about the memory palace, do yo use certain places for certain types of memory task? Do you only use them once for that memory task? I cannot imagine there could be an issue if you try to use your house for memorizing multiple like things, like there could be some bleed over going on.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, so part of this lifestyle of memorizing things you want to have a number of memory palaces, and you want to manage them correctly. You’re going to have some memory palaces that hold information that you’d like to keep forever that’s not going to change. Think of stuff like the presidents, or the periodic table, or world capitals, that kind of stuff. Stuff that you just want to know, or stuff you’re studying for your job, or for school, whatever, you would choose a memory palace or create a memory palace, and dedicate it to that alone just so that you don’t mess with the contents, and confuse it with anything else.

But then I also have a ton of memory policies that I use for stuff that is for one day I need it to remember my to-do list, and then by tomorrow I hope to forget it. What I do is I’ll have a cycle of memory palaces that are on rotation and day one, today, I’ll use this one, and then tomorrow I’ll use the next one, and so on. Then by the time I’ve used them all, I start back over and hopefully by then I’ve forgotten what was in it the first time.

Basically what I’m saying is some of these memory palaces, I practice forgetting the contents. I have to get good at forgetting some of this stuff because I need to tape over it.

Brett McKay: When you do your memory palace, like when you’re visualizing it, do you imagine yourself doing the first-person doom style where you’re going through the room like that? Or do you imagine … Because when I think of memory palace, I always imagine … Remember Family Circus?

Nelson Dellis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Where Billy goes through the house, shows him going through the backyard in these weird trails to do things.

Nelson Dellis: Yeah. Oh, yeah, Yeah.

Brett McKay: How do you visualize that when you’re going through your memory?

Nelson Dellis: That’s a good question. I think people do it differently but I’m more first-person until everything is like I’m looking at it. Sometimes I float around, sometimes I feel like I’m a part of it. It really varies, but I think more than not it’s like this first-person shooter view that you mentioned.

Brett McKay: All these things are going to be different for different people. You got to use what works for you.

Nelson Dellis: Exactly. Yeah. It’s your mind. We all think differently. I’m giving people through my book, and what I’m saying now a general idea, but ultimately you have to figure out by trying it, what your brain gravitates to. But the basics of it all is stuff that we all can do, namely that we can see pictures in our mind and we can use spacial information to really store it well.

Brett McKay: Nelson, let’s say someone wants to try putting this stuff into action. What’s an easy memorizing task that can really help them start greasing the wheels for this stuff?

Nelson Dellis: I think a great place to start is to try to remember names. You meet people all day long, all week long, and it doesn’t hurt if … It sometimes hurts if you forget someone’s name, but how is it any different than what you’re currently doing. You lose nothing by trying this now, and it’s a free game, app that’s available all around you. I really suggest people try it with that, make the effort and then try the SEE LINK GO! with remembering names.

Once you have that, you feel a little more confident, then try and maybe memorize something that you’re interested in, something that you’ve always want to learn, or whether that’s a poem or periodic table, whatever. I hate for people to try to memorize or use these techniques to memorize something that they find completely boring. For me, I like to memorize by practicing the events at these competitions, which is cards, numbers, names, all that stuff. But for the everyday person, maybe all they want to do is just memorize their to-do list, so do it. That’s what you’re going to practice with every day.

Brett McKay: Well Nelson, where could people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Nelson Dellis: Yup, my book is called Remember It. It’s available pretty much anywhere online, Amazon, Books & Books, whatever. If you just look for it, you’ll find it. You can also find a lot of information on these techniques on my YouTube page. If you just search for my name, Nelson Dellis, you’ll find my page. There’s a bunch of free tips and fun little videos. Then my website nelsondellis.com, you can learn more about me and get in touch with me if you have any questions.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Nelson Dellis, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.

Nelson Dellis: Thank you. Yeah, thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Nelson Dellis. He is a memory athlete and the author of the book Remember It. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everyone. You can find out more information about his work at his website nelsondellis.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/rememberit, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as there were 500 episodes there. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter so you never miss any of our articles and updates when we publish something.

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